The National Institutes of Health has awarded Albert Einstein College of Medicine nutrition scientist Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, Ph.D., R.D., a five-year, $4 million grant to test whether a diet rich in foods with anti-inflammatory properties can reduce cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease risk. Middle-aged and older participants from the Bronx will follow this diet, which is designed to appeal to a multicultural population, and researchers will measure cognitive function over time to assess its impact.
Because there are no effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease, many scientists are focusing on behaviors that may reduce risk, such as exercise, stress management, and following a balanced diet," says Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani, associate professor of clinical epidemiology and population health at Einstein. "Our aim is to study the effects of an appetizing, healthy diet known as the Multicultural Healthy Diet, that is easily accessible and that has the potential to improve brain function. There is some evidence for the importance of nutrition, and so we plan to evaluate its impact."
Costly Disease; Low-Cost Intervention
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2017 the cost of caring for individuals in the United States with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias will be $259 billion. The CDC also projects nearly 14 million people will have Alzheimer's by 2050.
"Given these staggering numbers, we need population level strategies to prevent or delay cognitive decline," says Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani. "While diet is known to influence cognitive health, past studies have been observational and most often conducted with Americans of European descent. And most notably, the studies have not measured biomarkers to evaluate a diet's effect."
Inflammation in the body, which over-activates the immune system, has been shown to play a role in various diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. The "Western diet," which is high in fat, sugar and processed foods, promotes inflammation.
Earlier studies have evaluated the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets and their combination known as the MIND diet. These diets include anti-inflammatory foods like green leafy vegetables, fish and olive oil and are associated with health benefits, including slower cognitive decline and improved brain health.
"A key aspect of the study is using the Multicultural Healthy Diet, which is built on a base of known anti-inflammatory foods, including whole grains, fish, lentils, nuts, beans, and herbs and spices," says Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani. "Many of the foods in this diet are widely available and used in cuisines around the world, rather than emanating from one specific region."
Brain Games and Biomarkers
Researchers will recruit more than 300 participants between the ages of 40 and 65 years old from Co-op City, a large north Bronx neighborhood with a diverse population. Half of the participants will follow the Multicultural Healthy Diet, attend sessions on shopping and cooking, record foods they eat, and receive monthly coaching calls to help establish and sustain their adherence to the diet. They will also play brain games on smartphones at certain points during the 27-month study to measure memory and information processing speed. The other participants will have access to general health recommendations related to aging during in-person and phone sessions, follow their usual diet and play brief brain games.
Researchers will measure inflammatory markers in all participants' blood and evaluate the cognitive tests to determine whether the diet is associated with improved cognitive function.
"The beauty of the study is that we're assessing diet and cognition in real time rather than having participants travel to a clinic for every cognitive assessment," says Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani. "And we're looking at an ethnically diverse population of middle-aged and older people. Perhaps we'll learn that we can change the course of cognitive decline with this diet or reduce risk for mild cognitive impairment that leads to Alzheimer's disease."